How to write what you don’t know

Renae Burgess is questioning the practicality of your high school English teacher’s advice.


You probably first heard the term when you were sitting in seventh grade English, a face among a sea of many other confused and confronted adolescents staring down the barrel of their first high school creative writing assignment. A dot point on the list of semi-familiar writing techniques like similes (excuse the pun), metaphors, what-the-hell-is-onomatopoeia, and adjectives-are-describing-words, your teacher would make a dramatic pause before bestowing her final piece of advice on your poor, impressionable young mind: write what you know.

Now, I’m not going to discredit Mrs Oswald by saying that this isn’t sound advice. Sure, I mean, if you’ve ever felt the trauma of dealing with a parental divorce and want to write about it, you’re prose sure will come across as sincere. I’ve never slipped on a banana peel in real life and spilt my Pepsi Max all down the front of my new white shirt, but hey, if you have, I guarantee there’s no better person to write about it than you. However, that short story you really want to write about an asexual boss-lady cyborg that wields a flaming sword to destroy misogynistic real estate brokers? I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re lacking the particular life experience that would be necessary when exclusively following the Write What You Know bandwagon.

So, for all of your fiction/fantasy/sci-fi/basically-anything-non-autobiographical writerly needs: How To Write What You Don’t Know.

Research Is A Must

Research, research, research! There is nothing worse than your story completely losing its credibility because of your personal lack of commitment to detail.

Are you writing about an illness? A city street? A stab wound? The feeling of almost drowning? A foreign country? If you can’t experience it first hand, it is your job to know as much necessary information about it as possible before embarking on trying to emulate the scenario. To most people, this scenario would most likely be foreign to them too, but to that one guy who has also been stabbed in the stomach like your character, you’d better be spot on the money, or you’ve lost their trust.

Additionally, research will not only help your writing seem authentic, but it will often lead you down new paths of investigation and knowledge that you wouldn’t have known to pursue otherwise that might drastically alter your story or character.

Research can be done in so many different ways, so don’t limit yourself to tracking down that particular street you want to set a robbery in through Google maps; find people who have been there, live there, and you’ll discover the features that people truly pay attention to instead of the ones that are just necessary for you. Read widely, watch tutorial videos on YouTube, bribe your friend’s nurse mum to get you a copy of brain scans next shift, leave your computer for the real world for a time and re-learn social human interaction. All of this counts.

Explore the world and characters you’re building enthusiastically and without inhibitions. Like their real life counterparts, they are far more complex than given credit for, and you’ll pay soundly for acting on first, uninformed impressions.

What Do You Know?

You’re writing a fight scene, and okay, you’ve been in a few scuffles in your time, but this scene has swords, also a few daggers, a lot of arrows are whizzing about and your character is fighting for their life, and losing. You haven’t (I hope) been in this particularly hairy situation before, and I understand if you don’t know anyone alive who has, so how in the world do you write it well?

Thinking you should have listened to that obnoxious seventh grade teacher when she told you to stick to your comfort zone? Well, writers can’t have comfort zones, so suck it up, take her advice just this once and write the scene with a focus on what you do know.

And no, when I say what you know I don’t want your mind flashing to a scene from Lord of the Rings, because you were not Aragorn rushing into Mordor to save Frodo whilst wielding a beautiful, ancient sword. What I mean is, have you ever held something heavy for a really long time and felt that ache in your muscles? Describe to me what it feels like to have the wind knocked out of you. What about the jolt that goes through your bones when you hit the ground hard? What happens to your hearing when your blood is pounding? How does your chest feel after you’ve run as fast as you can?

You can have your fight scene feel authentic without having to so much as look at a sword if you can focus on the moments that you and the majority of your readers have personally experienced. If you don’t know the precise fighting technique of a fifteenth century English knight, perhaps instead of wasting your time researching that (for starters, is it necessary?) allow your character or narration to focus on the other elements of the scene that you do understand.

Readers won’t care about your characters’ historically correct footwork, but they will care about how your character feels the moment he is swept off his feet and has a knife pressing against his throat.

Talk To People Who Do Know

Experts are your friends! You don’t need to become an expert electrician to write about one, but it does help immensely when there’s someone you can turn to who can answer all of your tricky, obtuse questions that Google doesn’t understand.

And you’ll be amazed how much someone is willing to share with writers! We all know that gratifying feeling we get when someone seeks us out for our specific knowledge, but imagine knowing that it’s going down on paper! Also, people in the know just really like correcting you when you’re wrong, and sometimes that is a very effective way to get a serious answer.

Another beautiful thing about person-to-person research is that you’ll find that people who work in particular fields will automatically fall into the jargon of their work life when discussing it, and this language can add fantastic realism to your piece if you pay attention.

Mind The Details

One of the traps you can fall into when writing about a foreign situation, even after all of your exhaustive research, is focusing on the things that you still don’t know.

Is your character a thief and knows how to pick locks when you don’t? Don’t focus on the pick-locking part of the scene then. Is your character watching their five-minute-high-stakes-acquaintance hotwire a get-away car when you don’t know how to hotwire? If you’ve only seen it done in movies, have her anxiously watching the rear-view mirror instead.

We’ve all had that experience as a reader where the writer has gotten a subtle detail wrong, and while it can be a minor nuisance, it could also be enough to put the book down.

When writing what you don’t know, there’s only one rule: you can knuckle down and research and come as close to knowing as possible, or you can duck, dodge, weave and avoid all you like, at the end of the day, it’s your job to sell it to your reader and make it real for them.

As a writer, don’t be afraid to approach a story that takes you beyond your personal limits, because stories aren’t just for one person, they’re for many, and as such rely on the many to make one. Let your imagination take hold.

“Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.” – Nikki Giovanni



Image: Sharon & Nikki McCutcheon, Flickr, no changes made.

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